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The BBC's Duncan Kennedy
"With so many past attempts dogged by failure, Nasa were praying this one would go well"
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Watch the launch
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Dr Chris Welch, Kingston University
"If there is water a little under the surface it will find it"
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Saturday, 7 April, 2001, 17:19 GMT 18:19 UK
Mars mission lifts off
Rocket launch AFP
Odyssey embarks on a 460-million-kilometre journey
The latest mission to the Red Planet by the American space agency, Nasa, has taken off from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Everything went smoothly as the Delta rocket lifted off on schedule carrying Mars Odyssey. "Absolutely fantastic," said Nasa's Ed Weiler following the launch.

Officials are hoping that Odyssey, which is due to reach Mars in October, will prove a success following the humiliating losses of two similar probes in 1999.

After making a 460-million-kilometre journey through space, the craft is expected to attain its working orbit around Mars in January 2002.

Data collection

The probe will carry a suite of scientific instruments designed to examine from orbit the chemical make-up of the planet's surface.

A two-year survey looking for ice
Odyssey will collect images that will be used to identify the minerals present in the soils and rocks on the surface.

Nasa is hoping that the information collected will give clues to the planet's climate history and help determine whether life has ever existed on the Martian surface.

It will also collect data on background radiation to help assess the risks to any future human explorers.

Once it has completed its mission, the Odyssey has the potential to become a communications relay for future Mars landers.

Higher costs

This mission has been scaled down because of the loss of two spacecraft in 1999: the Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander.

This time, Nasa decided to forgo the lander and use only the orbiter. It seems further development of landing technology is required before the agency can confidently head down on to the planet's surface again.

In September 1999, the Mars Climate Orbiter ended up in pieces around Mars or smashed on the planet because engineers mixed up English and metric units of measurement.

Just 10 weeks later, the Mars Polar Lander is thought to have smashed into the Red Planet, most likely because of a premature engine shutdown.

To avoid another fiasco, Nasa has spent millions of extra dollars on Odyssey, boosting the total mission cost to $297 million. About 22,000 parameters in the computer software, any of which could doom the mission if wrong, were double-checked.

"It has been reviewed to death," said one official.

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See also:

29 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Mars failures 'down to cash'
21 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Water 'found on Mars'
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Digging in and taking cover on Mars
28 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Mars mission critical for Nasa
23 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
What now for Mars?
11 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
Manned flight to Mars in 2014?
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